Helen Shaver gives demonic birth on the Vancouver set of Poltergeist: The Legacy

poltergeist

By Steve Newton

When I was covering the Vancouver horror scene as a correspondent for Fangoria back in the ’80s and ’90s, I would normally make an effort to see the projects I’d previewed when they were finally released in theatres or on the tube.

But it wasn’t always fun. In fact it was often quite painful, especially when it came time to sit through big-screen dreck like Watchers or Friday the 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan.

Watching something like the so-so TV miniseries Stephen King’s IT wasn’t quite so groan-inducing.

But there were a few shows I covered during lengthy set visits—like the pilot for the TV series Poltergeist: The Legacy—that I’ve never actually seen. I just noticed the other day that it’s still showing on Victoria-based CHEK-TV on Saturday nights, so I guess now’s as good a time as any to republish that old Fango story from 1996 in case there’s any hardcore PTL fans still kicking around.

Kinda doubt it, though. 

Vancouver’s massive Dominion Bridge Studios has been the site of some serious TV horror-making in the last few years, playing host to the miniseries of Stephen King’s It and, in 1994, Showtime’s CableACE Award-winning revival of The Outer Limits. Now the company behind that show. Trilogy Entertainment Group, is tackling another genre cable project with Poltergeist: The Legacy, a series about a wealthy and influential secret society devoted to the understanding of—and battle against—supernatural phenomena around the globe.

Dutch actor Derek de Lint toplines as charismatic university professor Derek Rayne, who leads the Legacy, humanity’s unknown—and final—line of defense against a growing evil presence in the world. The cast also includes Broadway actor Patrick Fitzgerald as the group’s spiritual guide, priest Philip Vasquez; Robbi Chong (Tommy’s daughter and Rae Dawn’s sister) as brilliant researcher Alex Moreau; Martin (Friday the 13th Part VIII) Cummins as adventurous risk-taker Nick Boyle; and newcomer Jordan Bayne as the beautiful and inventive Julia Walker.

When Fango visits the set on a soaking wet November morning, the filmmakers are in the midst of shooting the series’ two-hour pilot, which is scheduled to air on Showtime in mid-April. Under production designer Ian Thomas, the crew has constructed the interior of a turn-of-the-century Gothic mansion; expensive-looking antiques and a rich wood tone lend the set a rustic, old-world feel. There’s a cozy- looking fireplace in the main foyer, and a piano in the living room which the sophisticated Dr. Rayne plays at his leisure. At the rear of the set stands a nighttime rendering of the San Francisco skyline (the mansion is set on Angel Island).

Located above the sitting room is the command center for the Legacy, where state-of-the-art computers pinpoint paranormal problems around the world, but the head of the organization is currently resting in his trailer. The slim, handsome de Lint bids welcome, turns down the volume on his stereo and, while Neil Young warbles in the background, fills Fango in on what initially attracted him to the project.

“First of all. I’d never done anything like this in 20 years of acting,” he says, “so I was very curious about doing a show of this genre. And what I really like is that this guy, the leader of the Legacy, is psychic. All the members of the Legacy are good at certain things, and [series creator Richard Lewis] was looking for a leader with a lot of charisma. Right away I was taken by everything he told me about the character and the show.”

De Lint is best known internationally for his starring role in director Fons Rademakers’ The Assault, a powerful and disturbing drama about a Dutch boy who witnesses the arbitrary murder of his family by Nazis that won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. His current portrayal of Derek Rayne is his first shot at major stardom on these shores, but at this stage of the game he is unable to offer an in-depth analysis of his character’s role in the series.

“We’re just shooting the two-hour pilot, so it’s hard,” he says. “We have a vague idea where the series will go, but we don’t really have it in print yet, so it is a big adventure. But what I really like about the show is that all the work we do one day is the inspiration for the writers on the next, and everyone really wants to have the actors involved with it, to speak out about the writing. It’s not like you cannot touch it, like it’s Shakespeare; you can really talk about it and make it together and see if it works or not.”

One thing de Lint does know, about the series’ pilot at least, is that he’s pleased to be working with actor-turned-director Stuart Gillard. “It’s pure bliss,” says de Lint of working with Gillard. “I think every director who has been an actor before is a special reactor for them because he knows how an actor works. Some directors are very technical and don’t have a clue how actors work, and in all their sincerity they can say the wrong things. So it’s really good to work with Stuart.”

All this rumination about the actor/director mindmeld is fine, but your trusty Fango correspondent is itching to get the lowdown on Poltergeist: The Legacy‘s more visceral attributes, so a chat with the pilot’s FX crew is in order. In the cluttered corner of one spacious building, Leon Laderach and Joel Harlow of Steve Johnson’s XFX are doing their thing, keeping close company with the sculpted form of a fanged and nasty-looking baby that any mother would be hard-pressed to love. Think It’s Alive and you’ll get some idea what this ticked-off tyke resembles.

“We have a scene that involves a pregnant stomach prosthetic,” explains Harlow. “As the mother goes through contractions, veins pop out on it and bladders pulse with the illusion of the demon child trying to work its way out. Then we have an insert stomach that lights up from the inside, so you can actually see the baby workin’ its magic.”

Laid out next to the nasty new-born is the fake, fully-dressed body of a full-grown man, and this fellow—an over-eager antiques dealer portrayed in the pilot by Demon Knight‘s William Sadler—has seen better days. His face is contorted in agony, and he’s flat as a pancake to boot. “That guy supposedly has no bones,” says Laderach. “They tackle him and inside he kind of deflates. But first his head starts vibrating and his eyes pop and his chin starts stretching and he gets sucked into a box.”

It would be nice to hang around and chat further about popped eyes and stretched chins with these makeup veterans of The StandSpecies and Lord of Illusions, but this is one of those rare set visits where there’s a lot going on at once, and your reporter has to hoof it back over to the mansion set to see some actual filming. While manufactured lightning flashes in one of the manor’s well-appointed bedrooms, a nightgown-clad Helen Shaver is stretched out on a rug pulling a Rosemary’s Baby.

While one stagehand holds her bare ankles off the ground and another tosses bits of paper into the path of a fan, Shaver makes the kind of pained noises you’d expect from a gal who’s just popped a 2-foot demon child. When the afterbirth scene is played out to Gillard’s satisfaction, he yells “cut,” an apt utterance considering that this particular baby could really use a snip of the old umbilical. As a wrung-out Shaver relaxes with a smoke after her harried series of takes, she offers a rundown of the scene.

“I am birthing evil incarnate,” she explains, “and I’m being dragged around by the demon by its umbilical cord, because he didn’t quite bank on the fact that once he’s out he’s still attached to me. That part’s kind of horrifying and scary, but right at the end of it I open my eyes and what I see is my son who died a year ago, standing like an angel. Part of me is experiencing my dead son being reborn, so it’s a really interesting scene, because this extreme violence of birth is also a kind of bliss. I’m sort of in a trance.”

In the Poltergeist pilot. Shaver’s character, Rachel Corrigan, is attending the gravesite of her husband and son in the small town of Connemere, Ireland, when she unwittingly stumbles upon a supernatural object of unimaginable power in a dusty antiques shop. It is one of five ancient sepulchers containing a demonic soul trapped centuries ago by Druid priests, and when the members of the Legacy are alerted to this paranormal disturbance through Rayne’s unsettling psychic visions, they dispatch to Ireland to recover the sepulcher before its devastating energies can be unlocked.

gravesite

But by the time they get there, Rachel has been seduced and impregnated by the power of the sepulcher, and the fetus is developing at an astonishingly fast rate. Before you can say spawn-o’-hell, the aforementioned birth takes place, which isn’t good news for the Legacy, although Rachel’s traumatic encounter reveals a remarkable psychic gift and ultimately leads to her initiation as a permanent member of the group.

Shaver’s enthusiasm for the series is obvious as she describes her role; her animated delivery gives the impression that she’s a real fright fan. But even though she appeared in the originalAmityville Horror, had spiders burst from her cheek in The Believers and costars in Tremors 2: Aftershocks, her eagerness does not stem from any great appreciation of horror flicks.

“I don’t go to see them myself,” she explains between puffs. “I’m not really interested in straight horror, ’cause oftentimes to me the visual is a disappointment next to what my imagination can do. I wouldn’t go see what’s-his-name on Elm Street, and I’ve got no interest in Pinhead or anything like that, because I think gore and mixing sex and violence and that kind of stuff is patently prurient and exploitative. I walked out in the first minute and a half of Mortal Kombat, that aggressive hard rock with hideous images for little kids.

“What we’re doing is very different from that,” she adds. “This deals with archetypal struggles between good and evil. It isn’t in fact horror, it’s another world; it is the demons that we struggle with, that are part of ourselves. So I’m interested in that heart inside, you know, that place between waking and sleeping, just where you’re letting go and it scares ya. To me, therein lies the mystery, the magic.”

So what attracted this normally noncommittal, self-proclaimed “gypsy” to a role that—if the series takes off—could have her locked in to one character indefinitely? Part of it had to do with her positive experiences on the Outer Limits pilot “Sandkings,” which Gillard also directed and for which Shaver scored a CableACE Best Actress nomination. Then Poltergeist: The Legacy creator Lewis won her over the rest of the way.

“Richard called me up, and after 45 minutes of listening to him on the phone, I said, ‘Well, send me the script.’ Then I read the pilot we’re shooting right now, called him back and said, ‘This is good, but what next?’ So he started telling me about the series bible, and I became fascinated with the idea that since 500 B.C., there’s been a group of people who have dealt with those things that could not be explained. This group has continued to grow to where it’s a secret society that reaches into every echelon of our world. And I love the idea that people like Robert Louis Stevenson and H.P. Lovecraft were members, and that their writings were in fact their true experiences.”

Whether or not the TV-watching public finds a similar fascination in Poltergeist‘s premise will depend greatly on the success of its two-hour debut, which was written by Brad Wright based on a story by Lewis. Director Gillard says that he’s taking a different approach to this pilot, which he describes as “a little trickier” than his previous one.

Outer Limits being an anthology show, the demands were a little different,” he says. “It was more of a one-shot, like doing a movie, but with Poltergeist being the pilot for a series with continuing characters, you’ve got to try and set the show up a little bit more. It leads you to do more exposition about the characters than you would normally have.”

Given the critical acclaim that greeted “Sandkings,” the director found that there were challenges in following it up. “Everything these days is a lot of pressure,” Gillard shrugs. “I find the shows way more ambitious year by year. It’s like, you deliver a big show and then the next year it has to be even bigger. ‘Sandkings’ won all those awards, which put even more pressure on this show. It’s ironic that if you’re successful, it makes it even harder to do another one.”

Sandking

Prior to “Sandkings,” the closest Gillard had gotten to directing in the fantastic genre was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III—in other words, not too close at all. “I wasn’t a horror fan for years,” he says, “but I’ve become one. As a director, I love the challenge of doing them. It’s like, how do you tell a fresh story and not be solidly in the Wes Craven genre? They’re hard to do, but boy, they’re fun to pull off. It’s fun to scare people. I love that side of it. And of course the technical demands, because of the CGI work and everything else, that’s really major now in almost every project you encounter as a director.”

From the title of this series, you might expect that it’s somehow derived from the Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper blockbuster ghost epic of 1982. But according to Lewis, whose company is producing the series for MGM Worldwide Television, there’s little connection. “The only relationship to the Poltergeist film is that MGM had the underlying rights to it,” Lewis relates, “so they owned the property. When it came time, with the success of Outer Limits, to see what else they could mine, they came to me and said, ‘Do you want to do Poltergeist as a series?’ and I said, ‘Well, I don’t really get it. What, is the family moving to another [haunted] house? What a horrible life these people have!’ I said that I wouldn’t do that story because there’s a real limitation to it, and they said, ‘Well, if you could do it, what would you do?’

“And where I started from was to create a franchise based around a secret society that has been around for 2, 3,000 years, like Freemasons have, with their special handshakes and all that fun stuff that I grew up loving,” Lewis continues. “There’s much more of the wonder of what Spielberg did with Raiders, and you’ll even see in our two-hour pilot a little bit of a homage to that. Our opening sequence takes place in a mine in Peru, where Winston Rayne, one of the members of the Legacy, has taken his son Derek on what’s supposed to have been a vacation. But basically, the father’s completely obsessed with finding this box, a sepulcher which contains all these evil spirits, and that obsession results in Derek witnessing his father being killed right in front of him.

“Then we cut to 25 years later, and now Derek is himself the leader of the Legacy, and he’s sort of tortured by the way his father died. And what happens in the pilot is that they find another box, and Derek knows more than anyone how dangerous it is.”

Lewis admits that the success of The Outer Limits had a lot to do with spurring MGM to seek out another dark fantasy-minded series, but there’s also the question of competition—and comparison—with that biggest of all paranormal investigation shows, The X-Files. “I’ve never watched a complete episode of X-Files,” Lewis says, “but I believe they’re pretty different. Obviously it’s a huge hit, and I wish them well, but… Someone asked me if we feel that Outer Limits was created by the success of X-Files, and I remind people that Outer Limits was created in 1963, when [X-Files creator] Chris Carter was just a kid. So it’s the other way around. Outer Limits was a success, Poltergeist existed before Chris Carter probably wrote his first TV show, and I think you do borrow from successful material.

The-xfiles-facts
“The premise of The X-Files, as I understand it, is that the government’s hiding everything. In Poltergeist, these people believe exactly what they’re seeing, and they’re trying to protect society. It’s almost that H.P. Lovecraft thing where, in between what we see normally, you catch glimpses of incredibly disturbing images. Highlander tapped into that a little bit, where there’s this sort of mythic battle that’s been going on since the beginning of time, good vs. evil.”It is this historical context that Lewis believes will ultimately allow Poltergeist: The Legacy to stand apart in the increasingly crowded field of spooky TV.”What I’m positing is that this secret society of people was created to help understand the world,” he says. “And what’s fun about this is, Edgar Allan Poe was a member of the Legacy, as was Robert Louis Stevenson. They were writing their stories while they were part of this secret society, which really gives it a solid grounding and makes for great fun.”
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